The Village, in NZ Sign

Disclaimer: here I talk about my experience with a deaf community. I am not deaf. Where I describe deaf experiences, I’m reliant on what people have told me, and what I have observed. I take full responsibility for any assumptions, misunderstandings or mistakes.

As a hearing person, facilitating a script development workshop with a room full of deaf teenagers isn’t without its challenges. Sure, there’s a translator, and Kelly Hodgson’s ability to channel information along with subtle character nuances as was nothing short of miraculous. She was literally a multi-media nexus for twenty people for two hours. It’s hard. The students can’t hear me, and I can’t read them. There are silences while people sign-talk their way through complex details, and often, misunderstandings. And the silences are punctuated by palms slapped down on tables, as people draw your attention to what they have to say.

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Last year, my videographer friend Hank Snell had just embarked on a new project with Kelston Deaf Education Centre (KDEC), and invited me in to help with the storytelling. I’d worked with the deaf community before, and found it exhilarating, so I didn’t hesitate. A week later, we found ourselves in a room with a dozen or so students, some teachers and support staff and the miraculous Kelly, the interpreter.

love focus groups. There is nothing quite like a detailed, thorough, discursive examination of a meaningful topic. Invariably, you get to some crucial nugget that seems obvious, but which everyone knows we’d never have discovered, had we not had the discussion in the first place.

So the students were clear. The film had to have the following characteristics:

  • It should be about the village, which is what they call the student hostel at KDEC
  • Life at the village can look strange, to outsiders, and the film should reflect that
  • Most importantly, they said, someone should learn to sign

We asked, “what sort of strange?” Mostly, the strangeness revolves around a myriad of potential misunderstandings. Hearing aids’ batteries go flat at crucial moments. People *accidentally* trip the fire alarm (I still can’t quite imagine what chaos is like in a deaf environment). People turn the stereo on, loudly, and walk away leaving it blaring, just as Important Hearing People come to visit.

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And this: hearing people hate silence. Any interviewer knows that silence can be their most powerful weapon. Want someone to speak? Ask them a tricky question, and STFU. Silence draws language out of hearing people like a vacuum sucks matter. It’s not that deaf environments are silent. It’s just that sound is irrelevant. So you learn fast not to worry that someone’s pounding their fist on a table top: they’re just saying “Hey”.

So I took away a bunch of anecdotes, and our three key principles, and wrote up a draft. Hank stymied the fire alarm idea out of hand. Fair enough: no budget for elaborate set ups. Besides, tempting though it was, in a short film it sacrificed too much of the human story.

In the end, we gave most consideration to the widely shared experience of learning to sign, and we were surprised at the conflicts we found there. It’s not that learning a language is hard: of course it is. It’s that for many teenagers, the first encounter with sign language is not always good. There’s no guarantee that NZ Sign (or any other sign language) will reach any given household. And the families of hearing-impaired kids learn to cope with the condition, as much as the kids do themselves. Arriving in a deaf community for the first time, as a teenager, many find themselves resenting others who can’t understand spoken language. And it goes the other way, too. Signers can get frustrated with new arrivals who can’t sign.

As one student unpacked this experience for us, over half the room acknowledged that they’d had similar or identical experiences. This, it was clear, was the story they wanted told.

Running the creative workshop through an interpreter was difficult, and getting on set presented entirely new challenges. Eventually Hank, myself and our producer, Melissa Laing of Arts Whau, figured out a comfortable process. Melissa and I either worked with the actors as Hank shot the scenes, while the other one of us prepared other actors for subsequent scenes.

In fact, Hank shot hardly anything. Having worked with a wide range of groups with special needs for over twenty years, he’s developed a facilitative approach, taking his hands off the gear as much as possible, and keeping the students busy. So it was KDEC students who operated the camera, set our mini lights and swung the mic boom. You can hear him talk about all that to Lynn Freeman on Radio New Zealand.

Amy Blinkhorne and Nicki Morrison, both deaf staff at KDEC, co-produced. Amy supported the creative process from conception and throughout the shoot, and supported Hank with a heap of editing. Nicki basically just made everything happen.

I hope people like the film. It’s not all comfortable viewing, and to say that budget was a constraint would be both an understatement, and unfair on Arts Whau, who do an amazing job channeling the vibrancy of a challenged and diverse community.

It sort of goes with the territory of community art, that the challenges in the community can feed straight into the project. So the strangeness of silence is there for you all, if not to enjoy, then to experience and reflect on. The film also shows some of the unique – maybe even eccentric – individual responses to a challenging world, and we didn’t always have the time to be subtle about it.

And, most importantly, someone learns to sign. It happens on screen. And – for those of you who watch to the end – it’ll happen for you too. Unless, of course, you’re already conversant in NZ Sign. In which case, all I can hope for is that you recognise the experience our hero Brandy goes through, either in yourself or in someone you know.



Living on in Unknown Places

I was sad to leave my teaching gig at Manukau Institute of Technology. I liked the staff, a lot, and felt rather privileged to be in their company. And the students were among the most dedicated, motivated and hard working I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet. All in all, a top crew. I’ve survived a few restructures in my time. But this one got me.

The good news is that some of it lives on. In one of my courses, a little group of students and I were charged with exploring the “collaborative skills of professional writing.” So we put out a book. All I really did was repeatedly ask the same question: what sort of book you guys gonna write?


Cover photo (ex. thumb) by Kendra Leilua. This image includes a simple piece of manipulation which made it perfect for us. Chocolate fish if you spot it, and the location.

They came up with Unknown Places. It’s about the bits of Auckland you can’t normally see, and it’s also about some well known bits from a previously unknown perspective. The students came up with the concept, and the writing brief, and the writing, and the review process, and the cover photo.

The few dozen copies we produced sold out more or less immediately over a few sandwiches in the campus atrium, and just broke even. Imagine that! Should have done more.

But good news! Russell Brown, proprietor of our favourite Auckland blog, is publishing the stories this week on Public Address. Here goes chapter 1: The Crescent (Otara). The students were very clear that a) they wanted an intro from me, and b) it shouldn’t be in any way separate from the rest of the book. So it’s ended up as chapter 1.

And here’s chapter 2: Queens of K Rd (central) by Annette Morehu.

Keep an eye out on Public Address for four more stories coming out over the course of this week. I’m proud of what we accomplished. And I’m excited to see what Annette Morehu, Damian Pereira, Mark Joblin, Nicole Magolan, Anna Matheson, Saracen Aiono and Cameron Airlien come up with next.

I feel lucky to have worked with a group of diverse, creative and dedicated people. See you round, guys!

As for me, I’m returning to freelance work, unless and until I track down more teaching. So, if you have any need of a writer/ facilitator/ researcher, the lines are open!

Gender politics and sport

You might not know it, but the elite yacht racing community is taking a lead in terms of gender equality in sport. It’s a simple solution: all you have to do is specify a minimum number of women in the crew. Since most yachts are sailed with more than one person, it’s very easy for a governing body to dictate how many of them must be of any particular gender.


Not for the faint hearted, Turn the Tide on Plastic, crewed by 5 men and 5 women, heads for Cape Town (and soon, Auckland) in the Volvo Ocean Race. Photo: Irish Times.

It’s very limited so far, but there are at least two elite events where it’s currently being practiced: the Olympic Nacra 17 class, and the Volvo Ocean Race, which departed Hong Kong last weekend, and will arrive in Auckland around the end of February.

The Nacra 17 is a hydrofoiling catamaran. It’s the fastest boat in the Olympics, and therefore one of the most competitive classes in the world. Its class rules require that one of the two crew members be female: skipper or forward hand, makes no difference, either will do.

The Volvo Ocean Race is more complex. Because men – for whatever reason – have dominated the crews for so long, very few women have the same level of experience as the most experienced men in the race. So, the race organisers have established some incentives for teams to recruit women. The more women you have, the more crew you can have.

Therefore, a team can have any of the following crew combinations:

  1. 7 men
  2. 7 men plus 1 or 2 women
  3. 7 women plus 1 or 2 men
  4. 5 men plus 5 women
  5. 11 women

Disappointingly, many of the old trousers of the event were moaning about this, and initially, several teams figured they’d go short handed rather than tolerate women on their boat. Gratifyingly, there are now no boats sailing without women. Most boats are sailing under option 3, with two women. One – Turn the Tide on Plastic – is sailing under option 4, and they’re mostly rookies.

That means that, for the first time in the event’s long history, a woman will know what it’s like to win the Volvo Ocean Race.

It’s not that there haven’t been women in the race in the past. But they tended to be confined to their own boats. So while someone like Peter Blake did the event twice as a crew member before skippering in it three times, before finally skippering a boat to victory in it, his accumulated experience was only ever obtained from, and shared with, other males. This pattern is evident in the results. Women’s crews simply haven’t performed that well.

Some folks say, well, if women can do it, let them compete against men. That’s a bit like the old corporate boys claiming there’s no sexism round the board table: everyone knows it’s bullshit. Anyway, why does it have to be like that? Why can’t women and men compete together?

It raises the obvious question: why don’t other sports do the same thing? Team sports would seem to be the ideal place to enforce gender equality. We already insist on team sizes, and often in amateur divisions, on body size as well, and age. Gender seems like an obvious extension.

Tennis has been doing it for ever. So has social netball. Why not others? Hockey? Football? Rugby? What – exactly – is the problem? Will players forget where to put their hands? Will athletes become bashful in the white heat of play? If a player gets red-carded for pile driving an opponent’s head into the ground, what difference does it make if that opponent is male or female? The behaviour should be rightly punished, either way.

Presumably, people get a bit freaked out about different body types colliding in a high contact sport. Is it too sexy, too dangerous or both? Rugby’s already dangerous. Would it be any more so? Perhaps the umpires have a problem with it – damned if I know. Seems like a no brainer, to me.

Imagine the problems that would be solved by mandating mixed gender participation in major, male dominated sports leagues and international competitions. The role modelling alone would revolutionise society overnight. And – who knows – it’s nice to think they’d all be on the same pay scale, too. Although, sure, you’re welcome to believe that one when you see it.

The politics of extinction

Out here in the Waitakere ranges we’re suffering from a natural disaster. The ground didn’t rise up. We haven’t been flooded. It’s not a fire. Our natural disaster is silent and invisible, a microscopic bug – phytophthora agathidicida – which kills Kauri, the apex of forestry ecosystems in the north of New Zealand.

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Photo from Keep Kauri Standing, which appears to be part of the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Once the bug gets into a tree, there is no known cure. Some trees seem to be better at defending themselves than others, but it seems that if a tree cops an infection, its days are numbered. Scientists have been experimenting with sulphite solutions, which may have some ability to improve trees’ defences. But it’s not a cure.

The bug can also survive in dry soil for up to six years. Anything travelling over the soil with the bug in it is likely to pick it up and distribute it. Once the bug comes in contact with water, it can work its way towards kauri roots where it takes hold, multiplies and kills off its host mainly by drawing away nutrients. First it attacks the roots and then it works its way up the tree. More detail on the bug’s life cycle here.

So, human feet are the main distribution vectors, along with pigs’ feet, horses’ feet and bicycle wheels. Hunters are bad because they go both on and off tracks. But they’re also good because they take out pigs, which – like hunters – go everywhere. How many hunters assiduously clean all gear which comes into contact with the ground before departing the hunting ground? A few. More probably do partial cleans, which are about as effective as not cleaning at all: a single pin rick sized piece of infected dirt is enough.

By far the largest proportion of infected trees are on or very near walking tracks. That’s why the iwi Te Kawerau a Maki imposed a rahui on the Waitakere Ranges, where the disease is most prominent, by far.

Auckland Council recently voted down a proposal to follow Kawerau a Maki’s lead and close down the walking tracks. They cited logistical reasons (“too complex, difficult and unenforceable” said Penny Hulse), which seems rather pathetic on the face of it.  Instead, Council has been erecting keep-out signs at the front of high risk, high usage tracks. They’ve also been smothering infected areas with gravel.

But plenty of tracks remain open, such as the short, easy, and very popular Arataki Nature Trail, where the disease is rampant. If nothing else, you’d think a few signs (or “interpretation”, as the museological sector calls it) around the infected trees would be useful.

The trouble with leaving those tracks open is that it exposes the trees to further contamination, and – worse – hikers are still likely to pick up and distribute the bug.

In one way, Council has made things worse. It’s not just that they’ve failed to remove the number one cause of the problem (people). It’s also that people assume that if there’s no sign, then there’s no rahui. In some cases, this is benign opportunism. But often, it’s good old fashioned racism.

Some people are complaining that Te Kawerau a Maki has neither the power nor the authority to control where people do or don’t walk. That’s only valid if you firstly: dismiss any respect for the notion of mana whenua, and secondly: put that disrespect ahead of your concern for the kauri trees. In other words, you have to be racist first, and anti-environment second. And here’s me thinking the only people outwardly opposed to the environment were in the White House. Apparently not.

People are also asking: how long is this rahui thingy going to last? That’s a reasonable question. But, since the only plan seems to be to isolate the infected areas and then do everything possible to minimise the impact within those areas, it’s hard to see a short term solution. The bug remains dormant in dry soil for up to six years. So I guess that’s one time frame: assuming we can keep the infected areas dry for six years. Sounds like a bit of a mission.

You know those moments when you worry about the state of the world for our children and grand children? This is that moment. You’re unlikely to live long enough to see the benefits of your actions. Alternatively, you can regard it as an opportunity for generational theft. Keep walking in the Waitakere ranges, and you may well see the total eradication of kauri there, and possibly beyond. Part of the trouble is a tree can be infected for years before the disease is even visible.

There are other opportunities out west. Here’s a list. You’re much better off in the surf at Piha or Karekare. Or you can traverse the otherworldly deserts of Whatipu, or the lakes at Te Henga.

Or you could take your dog for a sprint at Kakamatua. There, your pooch will be scrabbling over the very same beach on which the people of Te Kawerau landed, having crossed the Manukau from Awhitu, after long exile in the Waikato. That exile resulted from musket-armed invasions from northern iwi in the early 19th century. Today, they’re fighting for the very same trees that were already mature and looking down on them when they landed that day in 1835. It’s easy to speculate they felt they’d come to the end of something bad, and the start of something good. If only they knew.

But still, standing there, you can congratulate yourself and your dog for being part of the solution, and you can imagine someone growing up 200 hundred years from now, gazing in wonderment at a forest of healthy kauri. Or not.

PS: Here’s one for those who don’t think in 280 characters.

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Makin’ Wookie

Say you lived in a household amongst whom the last full viewing of a Star Wars movie was somewhere in the 1980s. Imagine also, within this culturally retarded environment, a moment of parental carelessness, resulting in the accidental, partial screening of Phantom Menace, and the resulting blanket rejection of the entire franchise across key target demographics.

From Star Roars, Mad Magazine, 1977. Written by Larry Siegel and Dick Debartolo, drawn by Harry North.

Lastly, within this barren, isolated landscape, picture the tender, green shoots of curiosity – germinating in the swampy midst of the younger populations – for The Last Jedi.
This is a delicate and sublime moment, when the force awakens in the darkest and remotest recesses of the empire. And yet, precisely because of the chronically malnourished environment, this moment presents itself with complex needs.
Does we rush to the nearest cinema, light sabres blazing, and pick up where the rebel alliance left off? Or do we subject ourselves to discipline and training, immersing ourselves first in the histories of legend? Both have risks. With something like 16 hours of screen time to catch up on, we fear that the first option may be too much for the young initiate, who may be overwhelmed by the labyrinthine narrative of false alliances, swapped identities and oedipal complexes.
On the other hand, sitting through all that just to catch up? Good grief. The force would buckle under the sheer weight of the task, before it even tasted battle. Besides, it won’t leave her any the clearer: the backstory barely stands on its own two feet, even if we skip the entire first reboot trilogy.
And, if we were to attempt the entire series, where exactly ought one to start? Is it best viewed in the order in which it was first produced, or in the diegetic order of the narrative?
I mean, we could always just go see the movie. But I don’t know if we’re going to get another shot at this. If we get it wrong, we may be forever marooned on Tatooine: the worst second act of all time.
Tatooine haunts the entire franchise, much as the two term Lange government haunts the Labour Party. Every time the franchise gets another outing, it’s there in the background, like a shipwreck, a warning to everyone that the forces of darkness could emerge at any time.
It’s a big risk. In the words of Robert McKee “Why the fuck should I waste my two precious hours on your movie?”

Bikes, trams and Freddy Mercury.

18 cyclists have died on New Zealand roads this year, more than three times last year.  And the Herald is asking people for close call stories. Here’s my top three.

Freddy Mercury in a Jap Import

I’m cycling home on Great North Rd, just past Spaghetti Western, at rush hour. It’s not gridlock: four lanes are moving fast. Honk! A close-by horn startles me. A dude in a small Japanese sports car overtakes me, flips me the bird, then stops in a queue at the lights as I pass him and leave him behind.

Couple hundred metres later, same thing happens. Honk! Dude’s got an attitude problem. Then it happens again. Honk! This time, he overtakes me and stops on the broken yellow line leading up to the lights at Avondale race track. His car door opens, and he gets out. I think: what the fuck?
I see him stand apart from his car, legs spread, holding his door wiiide open like a man-machine gate, blocking the entire lane as he looks back towards me, fast approaching and leading the oncoming traffic. Behind him, the lights turn green. Surrounded by cars swerving to miss him, and me, I take to the inside lane and – for the last time – I truly leave him far, far behind.
In the midst of the chaos, I manage to catch a glimpse. He’s partly ripped, partly flab, in tight denim shorts and a wife beater T. He’s got aviator sunnies, terrible skin and a Freddy Mercury ‘tache. He’s retreating back into his stinking metallic shell, fag in mouth and foul thoughts in mind. Whatever he’s on, I really don’t want it.

Look to the left

So many of these. This one’s on Hillsborough Road: a winding, undulating affair overlooking the Manukau. Again, plenty of traffic. I’m casually zooming downhill when a young woman in an old hatchback makes a left turn, at the very same moment that she’s trying to pass me. In other words, she’s attempting to turn through me, like I’m simply not there.
I lock up my back brake. I yell: “Oi!” Nothing happens. It’s a well sealed road, but – non cyclists may be surprised – there’s just enough fine gravel around the gutter to prevent me stopping, and keep me skidding. “Oi!” I repeat. She’s calm as a cucumber, but I know she’s seen me. For a thousand microseconds it’s just me and her, wheels in lockstep, heading for oblivion as my space between her car and the curb gets smaller, smaller, sma-
I consider smashing my fist against her window but this is no time for histrionics: death is upon us. I just make the turn into the same road she’s aiming for, bring my bike to a stop, and watch her drive off into the distance, before remounting and going back to my oh-so-pleasant commute. She was a young Asian woman with steel rim glasses, a crucifix round her neck and rusted barbed wire coursing through her veins. At least Freddy was clear about his intentions; but this calmly grinning bitch is the ice queen.

Kids on trams

Riding to work past Western Springs Park, I find no room for cyclists between the cars and the plastic road works barriers, so I hop onto the footpath. Up ahead, I see a crown of hi-vis guys on the footpath, so I cut across a metre of grass and get onto the concrete tram line. I have to adjust my speed to allow for the odd pedestrian here and there, but on the whole it feels good.
Coming towards me, a young school girl rides a bike, with one hand on the handle bars, the other holding the hand of her brother. Brother is on a skateboard, and she’s towing him. The pair of them have just enough control at the speed of a casual stroll to stay between the inset grooves of the tramlines: nothing more. They’re everywhere, and they’re coming straight at me.
I smile. I chirp “keep left!” as cheerfully as I can. “keep le-” I manage to traverse the steel tracks, at a dangerously acute angle. Now I’m wobbling on a few inches of concrete on the outside of the track. My front wheel drops off the hard ledge. It’s only about two inches down into the grass, but it’s enough to catch me off balance. the front wheel goes perpendicular to its trajectory, and the bike and I land in a painful, splattered heap on the concrete.
The road workers are a top flight crew. They’re friendly and sympathetic. One of them promptly produces a first aid kit, and uses fresh saline caps and clean wipes to wash my fresh, pebbled grazes before competently dressing them. Months and months later, long after I’ve reported the incident to Auckland Transport, someone whose job it is to ring me up, does so. He tells me he was a cyclist himself, once. But no more, since an accident with a car caused him to break his back.
The only single thing these incidents have in common, besides me, is that they would all have been prevented by a separated cycle lane. I suppose we could also say, well, if Freddy, and the Ice Queen, and the kids on the tram track had their basic shit together, then that might also have made my day a little safer, too. But we forgive them, for – being human – they know now what they do. And, after we’ve forgiven them, we separate ourselves from them, with a nice and aesthetically pleasing strip of concrete blocks, demarking a safe and functional cycle lane.
The idea that someone is occupying the cycle lane currently under construction in the remote hamlet of Grey Lynn, on the basis that it could have been consulted better, is a travesty on the long, proud and progressive history of the very word “occupy”.
Update: WordPress formatting has gone to shit.

7 sleeps till Going West

I’ve gone a bit literary in recent years. As well as biting off a slightly-larger-than-I-can-eat biographical project (on which more later), I’ve got a teaching gig with the creative writing team at Manukau Institute of Technology, and I’ve also found myself on the board of the Going West Festival.

Why? After 30 odd years as a theatre director, dramaturge, critic, researcher, content strategist and producer, it eventually dawned on me that all I really like doing – all I’ve ever really done – is tell stories. So, now I’m doing as much as I can.

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Going West is going strong. The bad news is that we’ve got a change in venue this year. The Titirangi War Memorial Hall had a bad fire a couple of weeks ago, so this year we’re in the old Waitakere Council Building in Henderson.

While it’s no longer in my neighbourhood (I love strolling up the road to the festival, taking in a show at Te Uru gallery sometimes on the way); the Henderson venue has the distinct advantage of being built on a train station, so it’s super easy to get to. And since the inaugural festival was founded by Murray Gray on a train with a reading by Maurice Gee, that seems fairly ideal too.

The programme has highlights aplenty. On opening night of the Books and Writers’ Weekend, this Friday, I’m looking forward to Small Holes in the Silence, which is a range of New Zealand poetry read by Bill Manhire and accompanied by Norman Meehan, Hannah Griffin and Blair Latham. The same night has more poetry by Selina Tusitala Marsh and a lecture by the always-erudite economics journalist Rod Oram.

Elsewhere throughout the weekend you’ll find me in the room with Anne Salmond and Moana Maniopoto on New Zealand in and after 1840; Catherine Chidgey and Sue Orr on The Wish Child; Witi Ihimaera, Tina Makereti and Paula Morris on their anthology of indigenous writing; and Russell Brown and Colin Hogg on weed (the subject of Colin’s new book).

There is more to the festival beyond the weekend, though. The theatre programme alone is an entire festival in itself, including a night with Rawiri Paratene, a playwriting masterclass by Albert Belz, The Maori Sidesteps, and Kororareka by Paulo Rotondo and Red Leap Theatre, and miles more besides.

On Saturday Night I’ll be as close to the front as I can get at the Poetry Slam final. Here, spoken word artists slug it out for a cash prize. While some people find competition at odds with culture, I like this annual event. It’s all about courage and honesty and changing the world and I think putting money on the table sharpens all the contestants’ verbal blades.

There’s also a new event this year: a little cinema festival. Across 18, 19 and 20 September there’ll be a doco on Mansfield, another on Sargeson, a curated collection of cinepoetic shorts and also a screening of the much loved, highly awarded My Father’s Den, based on Maurice Gee’s third novel.

So, take a break from changing the government, get on a train and go west (preferably while reading Going West). And don’t forget to bring a bag for all the books you’ll want to get while you’re there.